Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Maxine Kumin

Kumin is hardly an obscure poet--but then again: over the holidays an acquaintance of mine informed me that even a 'bestselling' book of poems reaches a minuscule audience, maybe a thousand copies of a Billy Collins or Mary Oliver book are sold; apparently there is a web site featuring a fellow firing different kinds of rifles--that's it, just shooting guns--that has had 500 million hits, which figure is at least one hundred times greater than the total sales of all books of poetry since the composition of Gilgamesh.  So: all poets are obscure. Well, so what?  I think they like it that way.  When I read Poetry magazine, I always think--who the hell reads this stuff?  And then when I read the reviews I know the answer--people working on MFA's in poetry read poetry, poets read poetry, and about two hundred and twenty six other folks, ordinary folks, are willing to shell out sixteen dollars for a slender volume of verse; indeed, they can imagine no better use for their money.  That's the world we live in--six hundred bucks to shoot off an AR-15 and $16.95 to spend a blissful afternoon with the great farmwoman poet, Maxine Kumin.  De gustibus.  

I'm one of the two twenty-six.  I just bought Maxine Kumin's Where I Live--three copies in fact--and I love this book so much that I'd like to make a You Tube video of myself reading it. Kumin has made a career of writing poems in the vernacular, in simple language that resembles nothing so much as a roller-coaster ride--full of metaphysical twists and turns, hair raising syntactic stunts, and an eye for the landscape below.  Here's one from the new book:

The Brown Mountain

What dies out of us and our creatures,
out of our fields and gardens,
comes slowly back to improve us:
the entire mat of nasturtiums
after frost has blackened them,
sunflower heads the birds
have picked clean, the still
sticky stalks of milkweed
torn from the pasture, coffee grounds,
eggshells, moldy potatoes,
the tough little trees that once
were crowded with brussels sprouts,
tomatoes cat-faced or bitten into
by inquisitive chipmunks,
gargantuan cucumbers gone soft
from repose. Not the corn stalks and shucks,
not windfall apples. These
are sanctified by the horses.
The lettuces are revised
as rabbit pellets, holy with nitrogen.
Whatever fodder is offered the sheep
comes back to us as raisins
of useful dung.
Compose is our future.
The turgid brown mountain
teams, releasing
the devil's own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments--
cat vomit, macerated mice,
rotten squash, burst berries,
a mare's placenta, failed melons,
dog hair, hoof parings--arises
a rapture of blackest humus.
Dirt to top-dress, dig in. Dirt fit
for the gardens of commoner and king.

Kumin redeems the list-filled poem with touches that show the depth of ordinary things: "repose," "sanctified," and "rapture" are perfect; and the line, "Compost is our future"--how simple and ironic....yes, it is our future.  Kumin is funny ("The Nuns of Childhood: Two Views" or "Coleridge's Laundry"); ecstatic: "I tear the caul, look into eyes/as innocent, as skittery/as minnows." ("Praise Be"), and, best of all, poetic, as in making me see something in my world, something ordinary or liable to be overlooked, in a wholly fresh way: the zen of poetry is in the seeing, the wrapping of something in beautiful language, the opening of the reader's eyes.  I am often too dull for my own good, but poets like Kumin make me  better than I would otherwise be--this one, for me, tips the scales, and it is the one I plan to memorize:

Sonnet In So Many Words

The time comes when it can't be said,
thinks Richard Dalloway, pocketing his
sixpence of change, and off he goes
holding a great bunch of white and red

roses against his chest, thinking himself
a man both blessed and doomed in wedlock
and Clarissa meanwhile thinking as he walks back
even between husband and wife a gulf . . .

If these are Virginia and Leonard, are they not
also you and me taking up the coffee
grinder or scraping bits of omelet free
for the waiting dogs who salivate and sit?

Never to say what one feels.  And yet
this is a love poem. Can you taste it?

Can you taste it?  I can.

George Ovitt (1/15)

Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010, is published by W.W. Norton

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